Aging beer: Getting to the bottom of the barrel
For most people seeing a wooden #barrel in a winery is totally normal. However, seeing those in breweries isn't so common. Or let's say, it isn't anymore. For over 2000 years wooden barrels have been used to store liquids (including beer of course) and other materials. In the 20th century the use of those barrels started to slowly decline as a material called "stainless steel" was getting more popular. Stainless steel is a lot easier to maintain, which is the main reason most breweries stopped using wooden barrels. Only a few traditional breweries kept maturing their beer in wood. Nowadays, we see more and more beer labels with words like "barrel aged", "bourbon barrel aged" or even "double barrel aged". So aging beer in barrels is getting popular again. In this blog we want to tell you why that is and what wooden barrels do to beer.
Why is beer aged in barrels and what beer styles are best for aging?
Beer is aged in barrels for many reasons, but most important are imparting flavors from the wood and causing a #brettanomyces fermentation. During the day the barrel warms up so the wood expands, making gaps that fill with beer. During the night the barrel cools down so the beer is pushed back out and gets infused with the aromas of the wood. So it really matters what was in the barrel before you put beer in it, most common are spirit or wine barrels, so you are getting a lot of those flavors. You are also going to get flavors from the wood itself like oak, but the wood also naturally has chemical components in itself like #vanillin, which gives beer that typical vanilla flavor. Of course barrels can also be infected with brettanomyces or lactobacillus, they make the beer funky, sour or give it a barnyard flavor.
Typical styles that are aged in barrels are the highly alcoholic and full of tastes imperial stouts or barley wines, they are mostly aged in former spirit barrels as the high ABV spirits kill all unwanted bacteria like brettanomyces and they are not wanted in a beer of this kind.
Examples for barrel aged Stouts are:
Another very common style which is aged in barrels is the Belgian #lambic beer. Lambics are fermented and aged in barrels that are pretty similar to wine barrels. The bacteria and yeast in the barrel contribute to a spontaneous fermentation. Belgian brewers mostly work with used wine barrels from different wine regions of Europe, like France or Portugal. For the bigger barrels, so called "pipes" they are mostly making use of port wine barrels.
Examples for lambic beers:
It is also possible to age other beers in barrels as the styles mentioned above. But if it comes to paler or hoppier beer styles it can be way harder to get tasty results. As hop aromas fade fast an IPA that is in a barrel for a couple of months will not have a lot of hop aromas left. There are some breweries who do it anyway. A couple of them, like Siren Craft Brew, are known to have aged some Imperial IPA's for a couple of weeks in different barrels, what they did to get some of the hop aromas back was to dry hop the beer post barrel ageing. They achieved some tasty results for example their Barrel Aged Lemon Cello. There are also a lot of very nice barrel aged #saison beers, which are mostly aged in wine barrels because their wine characters are going so well with the refreshing saison flavors.
We hope that this blog gives you a good understanding on how the basics of barrel ageing work. Of course this is a very complex topic and you could write several books about it without repeating yourself.
But next time you're visiting your local bottle shop or liquor store keep an eye open for barrel aged beers and give them a try, we are pretty sure you will love them as much as we do.
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